Published on
25 February 2020

Toxic cycle of domestic abuse can lead to drug dealing and sexual abuse

The toxic experience of growing up with domestic abuse might be putting children at risk of sexual abuse and offending, according to Barnardo’s.

Girls being pressured into dealing drugs and being sexually abused by their boyfriends are just some of the shocking cases revealed in the charity’s report about domestic abuse published today (February 25).

As the Government prepares to introduce its new Domestic Abuse Bill, the UK’s leading children’s charity is shining a spotlight on the devastating impact of domestic abuse on its hidden victims: children.

‘Not Just Collateral Damage’ explains that, although children are not the intended victims, the effects of the trauma of living with domestic abuse can last long into adulthood if children do not get specialist support at the earliest opportunity. 

Half of children assessed as needing support from local authority children’s services have experienced domestic abuse. 

Barnardo’s surveyed some of its children’s services practitioners to build a picture of how the vulnerable children and young people it supports are affected.

One service reported that the staff are supporting three teenagers whose violent abusive relationships have turned to criminality. 

Their abusers, whom they consider to be ‘boyfriends’, have used coercive control and coercion to pressure them into becoming drug runners and dealers for them.

The report found some young people affected by domestic abuse mirror their parents’ behaviour and express the trauma they have suffered by being violent to the abused parent and also to their boyfriend or girlfriend.

This violence can also spill over to them being aggressive at school but also engaging in violent or criminal behaviour.

Barnardo’s says there is also growing evidence of a link between children experiencing domestic abuse and then going on to become a young offender, with 25% of boys and 40% of girls in custody reporting violence at home.  

And specialist staff from Barnardo’s harmful sexual behaviour services say domestic abuse is a contributing factor in a lot of cases they see. 

They say if these children had been supported for the domestic abuse trauma much sooner then it is possible the harmful behaviours may not have happened.

The report also finds children who have experienced domestic abuse are more likely to suffer from mental health issues like increased levels of fear, inhibition, anxiety and depression than their peers.

They are also likely to have poor self-esteem, low confidence and blaming themselves for what has happened.

Alarmingly domestic abuse and the trauma it creates are the most common issue the charity’s frontline staff see within the families they work with.

Every day in England there are an average of 692 cases of a child being referred to social services where domestic abuse is a factor. That’s almost 29 cases an hour.

But shockingly support services for these children are in short supply. There are only 197 services across England specifically for supporting the needs of children and young people, and the ones in existence are struggling to cope. 

And a study commissioned by Action for Children revealed that, out of the 30 local authorities assessed by researchers, children faced barriers to accessing support in at least two-thirds of cases.

Barnardo’s says specialist services are vital to stopping the toxic cycle and preventing domestic abuse from having a devastating effect on children’s childhoods and futures.

The charity is calling on the Government to include a requirement in its domestic abuse bill for local author

ities to provide specialist services  for child victims of domestic abuse.

Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said: “For far too long child victims of domestic abuse have been ignored, often spending their lives struggling to cope with the impact of this trauma 

“Failing to identify and support these children is a false economy. Every day in our services across the UK, we support children who have experienced domestic abuse and gone on to suffer sexual abuse, poor mental health and exploitation by gangs. 

“The new Bill is a unique opportunity to put this right. All children exposed to domestic abuse must have access to the specialist support they need to end the  toxic cycle and make sure they don’t suffer in silence.”

Notes to editors

Harmful sexual behaviour is defined as sexual behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years old that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others, or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult.

An analysis of 700 cases of HSB in the UK showed that two-thirds were known to have experienced at least one form of abuse or trauma, including physical abuse, emotional abuse, severe neglect, parental rejection, domestic violence and parental drug and alcohol abuse; half of the total sample had experienced a form of abuse other than sexual abuse.

Action for Children commissioned researchers from the University of Stirling to look into specialist support services available for children and young people affected by domestic abuse across England and Wales. Researchers found children faced barriers to accessing support in at least two thirds of the local authorities interviewed.